Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Decision Points," G.W. Bush

"To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself."-Shakespeare's Macbeth

Details With those words, Macbeth tells us that to judge ones impact on history you need to be a little bit blind as to what that impact was. The former president took these words to heart in ‘Decision Points’. The Presidents memoir was released yesterday and though I haven’t read it in it’s entirety, I did manage to get through a few key chapters. I’ve  also read reviews and responses from both sides of the Atlantic from some of the other world leaders that are key characters in this account.

The first thing that comes to mind is clueless. There is an alarming off-handedness about the implications of what's being said. About the unfolding financial crisis at the end of his presidency. About the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About the use of “enhanced interrogation” better known as torture.

The book is surprising in the fact that apparently it is not ghost written but is an unexpectedly engrossing memoir. But, you quickly get the feeling that reality and his memory are two different animals. For instance, he states, "Their interrogations ( of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) helped break up plots to attack American diplomatic facilities abroad, Heathrow airport, and Canary Wharf in London, and multiple targets in the United States," British officials have said there is no evidence to support this claim. The Heathrow alert in fact happened a month before his (Mohammed’s) arrest. In fact, British Counter-Terrorism officials have said that the most useful information provided by Mohammed was mainly related to al-Qaida's structure and was not extracted under torture.

Later on Bush writes that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder told him in January 2002 that the US president had his full support when it came to his aggressive Iraq policy. Bush wrote that Schröder indicated he would even stand behind Bush should the US go to war against the country. Gerhard Schröder has said that George W. Bush is not telling the truth.

On the other hand, he does sound sincere when he talks about his decision to stop drinking, and when he talks about his religion. But then he blows it when he goes on to present his anti-abortion stance and how he adamantly had to “convince Pope John Paul II not to waver in his pro-life convictions.” Uh huh, gotcha…..

You are left with the feeling that Bush, like Macbeth, need not know himself to judge himself. He constantly seems shocked and disappointed at the many failures of his presidency; Not finding WMD’s in Iraq, the financial melt down, the failure to capture bin Laden, leaked identities of CIA operatives, but then he turns around and blames these failure on others. Indeed, he judges his biggest failure in his administrations response to Hurricane Katrina. And his biggest accomplishment as “After the nightmare of September 11, America went seven and a half years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil.” So, to summarize, in his own eyes and words, his failure was in not dealing correctly with an act of god, and his fait accompli was in what terrorists didn’t do…..

I guess reality really is subjective.


The Dirty Lowdown

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Old Boys-Charles McCarry

Old BoysHave you ever read about some guy, dragged into a Good Will store by his wife and buys an old painting that ends up hanging in his garage for decades until somebody recognizes it as a “lost master piece"?

That’s how I feel about Charles McCarry and ‘Old Boys’. Picked this up in the Dollar Store while waiting for a price check….This is the most enthralling and intelligent “Spy Novel” novel I have read in years. Certainly the best American Spy novel and for my money, it and McCarry rank up there with John Le Carré in a select class of two.

First, a bit about the author. After writing for Stars and Stripes during World War II and working as a small-town newspaperman, McCarry was a CIA agent in the 1950s and 60’s in Europe, Asia and Africa and also a speech writer for the Eisenhower administration. He has lived in Washington, D.C., Florida and the Berkshires, rubbing tweed elbows with the powerful and the not so powerful. McCarry was editor-at-large for National Geographic and has contributed pieces to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and other national publications.

In the early 70’s he started writing his spy novels featuring ‘super spy’, Paul Christopher. Mysteriously, despite praise, from giants like Richard Condon, John Gardner, Tom Wicker, George V. Higgins,Christopher Buckley and Eric Ambler, McCarry's work never achieved popular success, and most of his novels had shamefully gone out of print. This was rectified by Overlook Press who started reprinting his novels in 2005. Apparently, they were a bit more successful the second time around and after 5 novels between 1973 and 1983 in this genre, he quit. He came back in 1988 with a historical fiction exploring the Christopher Family in the 17th century. Then he disappeared again until 1991’s Second Sight and then again in ‘95 with a sequel to ‘79’s The Better Angels Shelley's Heart . Then he dropped off the radar until Overlook started the reprints and in ‘05 he wrote Old Boys.

Okay, in Old Boys, Paul Christopher has apparently gone back to China, where he was imprisoned for 10 years, in search of his mother who disappeared in WWII with a Nazi Party Higher up. He hasn’t seen her in close to 40 years or more. Paul is reported dead, having rode a horse off a cliff in Xingjian province while on the quest. Enter Horace Hubbard, his cousin and also a former spook. Despite Paul’s funeral in Arlington, Horace doesn’t believe that Paul is dead. Neither does Paul’s daughter, Zarah. He enlists the help of a number of old colleagues', all now retired. And the hunt is on. The story from here entails a lot of globe trotting, a mysterious Scroll, supposedly carried by Paul’s Mother that was found on an ancient Roman ship wreck that would seem to relate how a Roman functionary ran an unsuspecting spy named Joshua Ben Joseph of Galilee during the time of Christ, with the help of a Roman citizen named Paulus of Tarsus. Paul's mother has carried this scroll for 50 years or more, first protecting it from Nazi’s, the Communist Soviets and now by a bin Laden type character, Ibn Awad who wants the scroll to discredit Christianity. Ibn Awad also has come into possession of some ‘lost Soviet’ suit case type nukes. The plot is almost indescribable, involving a Muslim terrorists, Soviet nuclear bombs; a Chinese forced-labor camp and a bad guy commie who may turn out to be a good guy; sundry ex-Nazis, ex-KGB men and double-crossers galore. Throw in a history of Falconry, a NASA satellite used to map the migratory patterns of the Houbura Bustard, and some Russian Mobsters and this can’t help but fail.

But it doesn’t.

It's a great tribute to McCarry's skill that he manages to keep all these balls in the air and carry the reader willingly with him making the story thoroughly believable, entertaining and real.

Understand that McCarry is not concerned with the tongue-in-cheek derrings-do of superheroes on the order of James Bond but with realistic character studies of complex human beings under stress and the interaction of different cultures and the characters that inhabit those cultures.

Add to this story line, a historian's concern for the 20th century and an elegant prose style that renders time and place with a sensuous atmosphere enriched by years of travel, and you've got all aspects of the master novelist. Note that I did not say "spy novelist." McCarry is writing more than genre literature. He is writing literature with a capital "L." whatever that is.

After having read what I thought was everything and everybody on the planet over the past 50 years or so, I somehow missed McCarry his first time around, which apparently so did the rest of the world. Now I have at least 8 novels that are at the top of my list, I do believe Old Boys makes it very high on my personal list of the decades best books and enjoyable reads. Find this, and McCarry’s other novels, you won’t regret it.


The Dirty Lowdown